International

Syrian Kurds celebrate war-torn country's first civil marriage

Ruling PYD party has opened the door for civil marriage in semi-autonomous Kurdistan

Syrian Kurds Hmaren Sharif, right, and her husband Rashou Suleiman clap during their civil marriage ceremony in Qamishli over the weekend. The co-presidents of Qamishli Municipality signed the marriage contract of Sharif and Suleiman, the first Syrians whom they say were married according to a civil ceremony in Syria.
Massoud Mohammed/Reuters

Amid the chaos of a two-and-a-half year war, civil marriage has arrived in Syria, activists and officials in the northeastern town of Qamishli say. Syrian Kurds Hmaren Sharif and her groom, Rashou Suleiman, signed the country's first civil marriage contract over the weekend, under new laws administered by the ruling Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD.

The ceremony in Syria's semi-autonomous Kurdistan region was presided over by the co-mayors of Qamishli, a city of nearly 200,000 where Kurds are the majority but Arabs, Assyrians and Armenians have long co-existed. 

"From now on, the municipality of Qamishli will sign the contracts of all who (wish to) marry," said Sima Bakdash, one of the co-mayors who signed Sharif and Suleiman's marriage license, according to news outlet 3arabi Online.

In multi-confessional Syria, where about two-thirds of people are Sunni Muslim and the rest mainly Shia, Christian and Druze, civil marriages between members of different faiths have long been forbidden.

It is unclear if Sharif and Suleiman are themselves from different sects, as the new law does not require participants to disclose that information.

The introduction of civil marriage in Qamishli is seen as a measure to uproot rising sectarianism and undercut the authority of religious leaders over social institutions like marriage, 3arabi Online said. Sectarian tensions in Syria have been exacerbated by the uprising, which pits mainly Sunni Arab rebels against the Alawite (Shia) regime of President Bashar al-Assad. 

The war has left more than 120,000 people dead and displaced roughly 6.5 million more, though Kurdistan has been spared the worst of the conflict's atrocity.

But groundbreaking legal reform in Qamishli is also the latest indication of Syrian Kurdish plans for a self-ruling Kurdistan. When Assad withdrew Syrian forces from Hasakah in mid-2012 to concentrate his efforts elsewhere, the iron-fisted PYD took over security and has since captured many Kurdish-populated towns along the Turkish border.

The country's more than 2 million Kurds, long oppressed under four decades of Assad family rule, have taken advantage of the insurgency in Syria to carve out a semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the northern districts of Hasakah province, home to the two largest Kurdish-held cities, Qamishli and Hasakah.

While the PYD wants full autonomy for Kurdistan, leader Saleh Muslim has repeatedly said his party has no interest in seceding from Syria.

Saturday's ceremony, meanwhile, was lauded by civil marriage activists, who have been bolstered by a year of unprecedented progress in a region of the world where sectarian leaders wield much power over personal matters like marriage.

Kholoud Sukkarieh, one half of the first couple to obtain a civil marriage license in neighboring Lebanon, told Al Jazeera she was alerted to news of Syria's first civil wedding when activist group Civil Marriage in Syria tagged her in posts about it on Facebook. She called the new marriage law "a great step forward."

"It is so courageous and brave to do such a thing during this sectarian war in Syria," said Sukkarieh, who had her Sunni sect designation struck from her official identification so that she could marry a Shia in April. She and husband Nidal have since welcomed Lebanon's first sect-less baby into the world.

"I hope this blood-shedding country will soon end up a civil country," she said.

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